Archive for Stonewall

Stonewall and After – in Praise of Drag Queens

Posted in Biographical, History, LGBT with tags , , , , on June 28, 2015 by telescoper

Despite not being able to go to the big event in London yesterday, it’s been a very memorable Pride Weekend, preceded as it was by the ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States of America that the right for same sex couples to get married was protected under the constitution. The White House responded to the judgement in appropriate style:

white-house-rainbow-3

I’m tempted to quote Genesis 9:16, but I won’t.

My facebook and twitter feeds have been filled with rainbows all weekend, as is my wordpress editor page as I write this piece. It’s been great to see so many people, straight and gay, celebrating diversity and equality. Even a Dalek joined in.

Gay Dalek

I’m a bit more cynical about the number of businesses that have tried to cash in on  Pride but even that is acceptance of a sort. It’s all very different from the first Pride March I went on, way back in 1986. That was a much smaller scale event than yesterday’s, and politicians were – with very few exceptions – notable by their absence.

In fact today is the anniversary of the event commemorated by Pride. It was in the early hours of the morning of Saturday June 28th 1969 that the Stonewall Riots took place in the Greenwich Village area of New York City. There are few photographs and no film footage of what happened which, together with some conflicting eyewitness accounts, has contrbuted to the almost mythical status of these demonstations, which were centred on the Stonewall Inn (which, incidentally, still exists).  What is, I think, clear is that they were the spontaneous manifestation of the anger of a community that had simply had enough of the way it was being treated by the police. Although it wasn’t the first such protest in the USA, I still think it is also the case that Stonewall was a defining moment in the history of the movement for LGBT equality.

One of the myths that has grown up around Stonewall is that the Stonewall Inn was a place primarily frequented by drag queens and it was the drag queens who began the fight back against intolerable  police harassment. That was the standard version, but the truth is much more complicated and uncertain that that. Nevertheless, it is clear that it was the attempted arrest of four people – three male (cross-dressers) and one female – that ignited the protest. Whether they led it or not, there’s no doubt that drag queens played a major role in the birth of the gay liberation movement. Indeed, to this day, it remains the case that the “T” part of the LGBT spectrum (which I interpret to include Transgender and Transvestite) is often neglected by the rest of the rainbow.

I have my own reasons for being grateful for drag queens. When I was a youngster (still at School) I occasionally visited a gay bar in Newcastle called the Courtyard. I was under age for drinking alcohol let alone anything else – the age of consent was 21 in those days – but I got a kick out of the attention I received and flirted outrageously without ever taking things any further. I never had to buy my own drinks, let’s put it that way.

Anyway, one evening I left the pub to get the bus home – the bus station was adjacent to the pub – but was immediately confronted by a young bloke who grabbed hold of me and asked if I was a “poof”. Before I could answer, a figure loomed up behind him and shouted “Leave him alone!”. My assailant let go of me and turned round to face my guardian angel, or rather guardian drag queen. No ordinary drag queen either. This one, at least in my memory, was enormous: about six foot six and built like a docker, but looking even taller because of the big hair and high heels. The yob laughed sneeringly whereupon he received the immediate response of a powerful right jab to the point of the chin, like something out of boxing manual. His head snapped back and hit the glass wall of a bus shelter. Blood spurted from his mouth as he slumped to the ground.

I honestly thought he was dead, and so apparently did my rescuer who told me in no uncertain terms to get the hell away. Apart from everything else, the pub would have got into trouble if they’d known I had even been in there. I ran to the next stop where I got a bus straightaway. I was frightened there would be something on the news about a violent death in the town centre, but that never happened. It turns out the “gentleman” concerned had bitten his tongue when the back of his head hit the bus shelter. Must have been painful, but not life-threatening. My sympathy remains limited.

I think there’s a moral to this story, but I’ll leave it up to you to decide what it is.

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An “Enfys” for Sussex…

Posted in Biographical, LGBT with tags , , , on June 9, 2015 by telescoper

As Head of School for Mathematical and Physical Sciences I get to do all kinds of jobs across the University to do with all kinds of matters, academic and non-academic alike. In the course of one of these – chairing the University’s Human Resources Committee – it occurred to me that it was very strange that it was a bit strange that a University (Sussex) so close to a famously gay-friendly city (Brighton) didn’t have any real forum for LGBT staff to share information, to support each other, and to run social, cultural or other events. It also seemed strange to me that the University of Sussex was not part of the Stonewall Diversity Champions scheme. Even worse, there is no official University staff representation at Brighton’s annual Pride celebrations, though the Student LGBTQ society has

My former institution, Cardiff University, not only has a thriving staff network (called Enfys, the Welsh word for “Rainbow”) and belongs to the Stonewall scheme, it also ranks 24th in the top 100 Equality Index of all UK employers.

Anyway, it was definitely with Enfys in mind that I suggested setting up a similar network here on the Sussex campus, open to all staff (not just academics). I wasn’t sure whether there would be any enthusiasm for it, but the senior management of the University gave me their backing to try.

And so it came to pass that we announced that a network was being set up, and there would be a kind of “launch party” on 18th June to plan what sort of things we would do. I had no idea how many people would be interested and was quite prepared for the idea to bomb completely. However, just a couple of weeks after the initial announcement we have more than 50 people on the mailing list, and I’m expecting good turnout for the launch which I hope will be a fun occasion in itself but also the start of something very interesting to be part of. I also hope people bring plenty of ideas for the sorts of events and activities we can organize and the energy and enthusiasm to work at actually bringing these ideas into being.

One of the most important things we have to do, though, is to come up with a name. Although I nicked the idea from them I don’t think we can really use Enfys. And “Sussex University LGBT Staff Network” sounds a bit dull. Any suggestions?

From Brighton Pride to Sussex Pride

Posted in Biographical, Brighton, LGBT with tags , , , , , , , , on July 31, 2014 by telescoper

Brighton Pride is coming up this weekend. I heard some people on the train the other day saying that they didn’t think such events were needed any more because “gays have everything they need, especially in Brighton”. Although I was tempted, I didn’t interrupt, though I did disagree. Things have indeed changed a lot over the last twenty years, but they could easily change back if we get complacent and Brighton has its fair share of intolerance and bigotry still.

I was myself beaten up on Brighton’s seafront many years ago, during my previous existence at the University of Sussex as a PhD student and a postdoctoral researcher. There was no doubt why I was attacked: the four young men who surrounded me and punched and kicked me to the ground were shouting just one word over and over again, “faggot”. It’s still a word I hate to hear used, even if purportedly in jest. That event left me with deep psychological scars that contributed to a breakdown I had as recently as two years ago.

Thirty or so years after my encounter with the queerbashers, attitudes have definitely changed, and so has the law. Certain types of criminal offence are now officially recognized as hate crimes: the list treats sexual orientation as equivalent to race, gender, religious belief and disability in such matters. The Police are now obliged to treat these with due seriousness, and penalties for those found guilty of crimes exacerbated by homophobia are consequently more severe. All Police forces now have special units for dealing with them; here is an example.

These changes are mirrored in other aspects of life too. For example, employment law relating to discrimination or harassment in the workplace now puts sexual orientation on the same footing as race, gender, disability and religious belief. In many universities in the UK, staff have been required to attend training in Equality and Diversity matters not only to raise awareness of the legal framework under which we all have to work, but also to promote a sensitivity to these issues in order to improve the working environment for both staff and students. Now we have equal marriage too.

This training isn’t about over-zealous busybodies. Under the law, employers have a vicarious liability for the conduct of their staff with regard to harassment and discrimination. This means that a University can be sued if, for example, one of its employees commits harassment, and it can be shown that it did not make appropriate efforts to ensure its staff did not engage in such activities.

Of course not everyone approves of these changes. Some staff  have refused point-blank to attend Equality and Diversity training, even though it’s compulsory. Others attend grudgingly, muttering about “political correctness gone mad”. You may think all this is a bit heavy handed, but I can tell you it makes a real difference to the lives of people who, without this legal protection, would be victimised, harassed or discriminated against.  It is, also, the law.

I think the efforts that have been made to improve the legal situation have been (at least partly) responsible for the changes in society’s attitudes over the last twenty years, which have been extremely positive. I’m old enough to remember very different times. That’s not to say that there’s no bigotry any more. Even in this day and age, violent crimes against gay men are still disturbingly common and police attitudes not always helpful even though many police forces do now have Lesbian and Gay teams, something that was just unthinkable 25 years ago.

Although relatively few universities appear in the list of gay-friendly employers compiled by the campaigning organisation Stonewall,  my experience generally, having worked in a number of UK universities (Sussex, Queen Mary, Nottingham and Cardiff), is that they are  generally friendly and comfortable places for an openly gay person to work. So much so, in fact, that there’s no real need to make a big deal of one’s sexual identity. It doesn’t really have much to do with the way you do your work – certainly not if it’s astrophysics – and work-related social events are, as a rule, very inclusive.

However, even in the supposedly enlightened environment of a University there do remain islands of bigotry, and not just about gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender staff.  Sexism is a major problem, at least in science subjects, and will probably remain so until the gender balance improves, which it slowly doing, despite the actions of certain professors who actively block attempts to encourage more female applicants to permanent positions. Universities still do not seem to me to treat sexual orientation with the same seriousness as, say, race or gender discrimination. I’ve had plenty of experiences to back that up.

I recently took part in an interesting meeting involving various staff from the University of Sussex with a representative of Stonewall. The topic was how we could work with Stonewall to make it more gay-friendly. If I remember correctly, there are 78 UK Universities currently taking part in Stonewall’s programmes. It is a matter of some  embarrassment to me that the University of Sussex is not among them. Perhaps the attitude is that because there is such a large and visible gay population in Brighton it’s not necessary for the University of Sussex to take any steps in this direction. I disagree, and am absolutely convinced that there are many Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender members of the University of Sussex staff who would love to see some action taken to make their workplace just a little bit friendlier and more inclusive, even if that just amounts to acknowledging their existence.  There is a visible and active LBGT student society on campus, but no such entity exists for staff – an absence that is truly glaring. I don’t even think the University has any idea what fraction of its staff identify themselves as LGBT.

No doubt there’ll be many members of the University of Sussex staff on the Pride Parade on Saturday and at the various parties being held around Brighton afterwards. Perhaps it’s time to start some sort of network so that for staff at the University of Sussex, Pride doesn’t just come once a year…?

If you’re interested in this idea please let me know, either through the comments box or by email.

Equal Marriage Bingo!

Posted in Politics with tags , , on June 3, 2013 by telescoper

If you’re following the debate in the House of Lords on the Second Reading of the Equal Marriage Bill, why not play Equal Marriage Bingo? Just cross off the predictable stock phrases as and when they occur, and you might win yourself a full House (of Lords). Although why you would want one is a mystery…

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courtesy of Stonewall

On the Buses

Posted in Politics with tags , , , on April 13, 2012 by telescoper

It seems that while I’m away there’s been a to-do and a hoo-ha about advertisements on London buses. It all started with this rather innocuous advertisement placed by the campaigning organization Stonewall

Apparently this upset a couple of minority religious sects, the overtly homophobic Anglican Mainstream and Core Issues which apparently has a mission to convert happy homosexual people into miserable heterosexual ones by a mixture of coercion, brainwashing and quack psychology. It’s strange that Christian groups like this have such an obsession with homosexuality. Aren’t there more important things for a Christian to be doing, like being kind to the poor and loving your neighbour? Anyway, these folks responded with a bus advert of their own:

Following a number of complaints about the latter, and an intervention by the Mayor Boris Johnson, Transport for London decided to remove the second set of advertisements on the grounds that

We don’t believe these ads reflect TfL’s commitment to a tolerant and inclusive London.

Actually, I think it’s a shame that the Anglican Mainstream adverts were removed. For a start, it’s one of the prices of living in a free society that you have to put up with views you don’t like. More importantly, however, the clumsy and childish nature of the tit-for-tat response from the “religious” fringe to Stoenwall’s pithy original reveals them as the mean-spirited dullards that they are. Their implicit reference to voodoo therapies as “gay cures” will hopefully now receive wider scrutiny in the media, and be exposed for what it is i.e. dogma-inspired pseudoscience. These folk would be more honest if they just took out adverts saying “We hate gay people”, but the disguise is so transparent that’s the message they carry anyway. I am confident publicity campaigns like this are counter-productive in the long run, so let them stand up and be counted. By their slogans shall ye know them.

The Advertising Standards Agency – correctly, in my view – deemed both sets of advertisements acceptable. It was a decision by Transport for London to ban the second set. I don’t think that’s contrary to the spirit of free speech. Anglican Mainstream or any other group has the right to print and distribute literature, organize demonstrations and what have you. It is however, up to newspapers, television companies and radio stations to decide whether they feel comfortable carrying advertisements by organizations promoting messages that run counter to their own code of conduct.

Legal Insults

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on July 30, 2011 by telescoper

Here’s something I think is an interesting topic for a quick post.

Apparently, the government is considering proposals to change the 1986 Public Order Act, specifically Section 5 thereof, which states that

a person is guilty of an offence if he … uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour … within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby

The criminal law also contains provisions intended to protect individuals from various other forms of harassment. For example, the 1986 Public Order Act and its amendment in the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act created the criminal offences of “causing harassment alarm or distress” and “causing intentional harassment alarm or distress”, where an offence is committed if an individual “uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.” Incidentally, these offences also apply to comments made on websites, as do the provisions of the Malicious Communications Act 1988.

The particular focus of the current discussion is the presence of the word “insulting” and whether it should be a criminal offence to insult someone. The first discussion of this that I read was in the context of homophobic abuse, and it’s interesting how it has divided opinion. For example, gay activist Peter Tatchell agrees with the proposed removal of “insulting” from the law, on grounds that it is a threat to freedom of speech, whereas the campaigning organisation Stonewall opposes the change.

This is a subject about which I will attempt to tread delicately, given my past experiences, but I have to say that I largely agree with Peter Tatchell. I don’t think it should be a criminal offence per se to make insulting remarks about another person, even if that insult comprises racist, sexist, homophobic or blasphemous language. I’m not saying that it’s right to insult people in such ways, just that it should not of itself be a matter for the criminal law.

The inclusion of “abusive” and “insulting” seems to have led to a situation in which the Police can interpret the law so widely that they can lock up anyone they don’t like the look of at the slightest provocation. By the same token, the law is so blurred that it is hard to apply where it is supposed to be  intended –  to stop harassment and intimidation.  The proposed changes will not completely simplify matters, as judgement will still be required as to whether the behaviour is actually threatening or not. Some people are more easily intimidated than others.

As a matter of fact, I’m not even sure that amending this act is the best way forward. Perhaps it would be better to repeal it and think again, drawing up something less open to abuse. And yes, I do think it has been abused by the Police for their own ends.

Having said that, I don’t think freedom of speech can be absolute. It has always been tempered by wider considerations. The old argument about shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre and all that. I agree that attempts to restrict it should be kept to a minimum, but there has to be some form of redress if someone oversteps the mark.  Abusive, insulting or harassing behaviour in the workplace should be dealt with in terms of internal disciplinary procedures, as many employers  have their own codes of conduct to follow if someone misbehaves in such a way and their employees are bound by contracts to observe them. If the employer decides to enforce them, of course…

I find it even more difficult to support the  current  laws about “incitement”, such as the 2006 Racial and Religious Hatred Act which could be used to prosecute people simply criticising other people’s religious beliefs. It seems to me that it must be a poor kind of faith that can’t survive being questioned by others. If language is used that is intentionally  threatening it is in any case already covered by the other laws I already mentioned.

The F-word

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , , , , on January 31, 2010 by telescoper

Once upon a time, a young man was walking home, alone, from a nightclub on Brighton’s seafront towards the house he shared with some friends. It was a warm summer night or, rather, morning, as it was about 3am. As he crossed King’s Road and began to walk up Preston Street, a group of four youths appeared from the direction of the West Pier, ran across the road and attacked him. He fought back, hitting one of them on the nose and drawing blood, but was soon overpowered and fell to the ground under a rain of fists. He was repeatedly kicked while he lay on the road, and soon lapsed into unconsciousness while the onslaught continued.

To this day he can’t remember how long this went on for, nor can he remember anything at all about the people who eventually came to his assistance. But he can remember the word that was being shouted continually as he was systematically beaten. The word was FAGGOT.

This was 1989, and the young man was me. At the time I was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Sussex, and I had just spent the evening at the Zap Club (now sadly defunct). On wednesdays, this establishment played host to  Club Shame, a gay one-nighter that was extremely popular and well-known around the town. Unfortunately, this made people leaving it in the early hours of the morning easy targets for the many queerbashers who got their kicks beating up gay men for no other reason than that they were gay.

I was actually one of the lucky ones. Apparently, shortly after I fell to the ground and passed out, a group of passers-by chased off the youths who had attacked me, helped me to my feet, and helped me get home.  The commotion when I arrived woke up a couple of my friends who cleaned me up, and gave me a glass of whisky. I was rattled, angry at the gratuitous violence visited on me by complete strangers, and frustrated by the clear demonstration of my own inability to defend myself.   I had a black eye, a fat lip and a lot of bruises but there turned out to be no lasting physical damage. Although I don’t like to admit it, I do think I have a few psychological scars. I don’t even tell many  people about this episode because my weakness embarrasses me – it’s a slur on my manhood, such as it is. Still, at least I didn’t end up dead, like poor Jody Dobrowski.

Neither I nor any of the friends (also gay) who helped me ever even thought about reporting the incident to the Police. The Brighton police at that time were notorious for dismissing complaints of gay-bashing despite the fact it was an endemic problem. People I knew who had reported such incidents usually found themselves being investigated rather than their assailants. In those days the law did not recognize homophobic offences as hate crimes. Far from it, in fact. Attacking a gay person was, if anything, considered to be a mitigating circumstance. This attitude was fuelled by a number of high-profile cases (including a number of murders) where gay-bashers had been acquitted or charged with lesser offences after claiming their victim had provoked them.

Now fast-forward about 20 years. Attitudes have definitely changed, and so has the law. Certain types of criminal offence are now officially recognized as hate crimes: the list treats sexual orientation as equivalent to race, gender, religious belief and disability in such matters. The Police are now obliged to treat these with due seriousness, and penalties for those found guilty of crimes exacerbated by homophobia are consequently more severe. All Police forces now have special units for dealing with them; here is an example.

These changes are mirrored in other aspects of life too. For example, employment law relating to discrimination or harassment in the workplace now puts sexual orientation on the same footing as race, gender, disability and religious belief. In many universities in the UK, staff have been required to attend training in Equality and Diversity matters not only to raise awareness of the legal framework under which we all have to work, but also to promote a sensitivity to these issues in order to improve the working environment for both staff and students.

This training isn’t about over-zealous busybodies. Under the law, employers have a vicarious liability for the conduct of their staff with regard to harassment and discrimination. This means that a University can be sued if, for example, one of its employees commits harassment, and it can be shown that it did not make appropriate efforts to ensure its staff did not engage in such activities.

Of course not everyone approves of these changes. Some staff  have refused point-blank to attend Equality and Diversity training, even though it’s compulsory. Others attend grudgingly, muttering about “political correctness gone mad”. You may think all this is a bit heavy handed, but I can tell you it makes a real difference to the lives of people who, without this legal protection, would be victimised, harassed or discriminated against.  It is, also, the law.

I think the efforts that have been made to improve the legal situation have been (at least partly) responsible for the changes in society’s attitudes over the last twenty years, which have been extremely positive. I’m old enough to remember very different times. That’s not to say that there’s no bigotry any more. Even in this day and age, violent crimes against gay men are still disturbingly common and Police attitudes not always helpful.

Somewhat closer to home, a recent story in the Times Higher pointed out that relatively few universities have made it onto the list of gay-friendly employers compiled by the campaigning organisation Stonewall. My experience generally, having worked in a number of UK universities (Sussex, Queen Mary, Nottingham and Cardiff), is that they are  friendly and comfortable places for an openly gay person to work. So much so, in fact, that there’s no real need to make a big deal of one’s sexual identity. It doesn’t really have much to do with the way you do your work – certainly not if it’s astrophysics – and work-related social events are, as a rule, very inclusive.

However, even in the supposedly enlightened environment of a University there do remain islands of bigotry, and not just about gay and lesbian staff.  Sexism is a major problem, at least in science subjects, and will probably remain so until the gender balance improves, which it slowly doing, despite the actions of certain professors who actively block attempts to encourage more female applicants to permanent positions.

I also agree with the main point made by the Times Higher article which is that, despite what the law says, universities still do not seem to me to treat sexual orientation with the same seriousness as, say, race or gender discrimination. Fairly predictably, the online version of the article attracted some nasty comments of a homophobic nature which were subsequently removed according to the terms and conditions of the website.

Recent experiences of my own (relating to this blog) seemed relevant so I passed them onto the Times Higher after reading this story. I didn’t think they would consider it important enough to publish, as in the grand scheme of things it involved a relatively minor offence, so I was a bit surprised to find a full story in this week’s edition. It caught me on the hop a bit because I wasn’t even told they were going to run it at all, let alone straight away and I didn’t get the chance to see the final copy. Thankfully, it’s quite accurate, matter-of-fact, and avoids sensationalism.

I’m not going to put all the details here, because as far as I’m concerned it’s all over and there’s nothing to be gained by going over it again. The relevance to the earlier Times Higher story is clear, however. In a nutshell, I made a complaint about a comment on this blog, involving offensively homophobic language, to the University of Nottingham, the employer of the person who made it. I was not asked to give evidence to the subsequent “investigation”, was not told how it was conducted or how it arrived at its decision, and was not even informed of its outcome for months after it had been completed, and only then after I made repeated requests. My subsequent requests for information about the conduct of the investigation were refused. The University of Nottingham also refused to confirm whether the culprit had ever attended Equality and Diversity training.

What was it I had objected to? It was the F-word – FAGGOT, universally recognized as grossly offensive and, as I’ve explained, one about which my I also have my own particular reasons for objecting to. I was appalled that a former colleague could use that word in a manner that seemed (and still seems) to me to have been calculated to be offensive, subsequent “apologies” notwithstanding. The “investigation”, however, disagreed and accepted the defence that it was meant as a joke. I wonder what they would have decided if I’d been black and had been called a “n****r”?

At the time, I asked for advice on what to do about this. Stonewall encouraged me to report it to the Police, on grounds of criminal harassment. This seemed to me to be excessive, since it had resulted in no physical harm or loss by me and would use up a lot of police time to little effect and a lot of embarassment to others at Nottingham that this had (and has) nothing to do with. A gay-friendly solicitor in Cardiff explained how I could pursue a civil case against the individual and/or employer but that it would be very expensive and damages, if awarded at all, would probably be very small. In the end, therefore, I decided to take the advice of our Equality and Diversity Officer in Cardiff  and reported it instead to the University of Nottingham to deal with internally. What a waste of time that was.

I’m sure there will be some readers of this post who think I over-reacted to the comment in question, and that I’ve blown this matter out of all proportion; this indeed seems to be the prevailing view among the comments on the Times Higher thread. You’re all entitled to your opinion, of course. I fully admit that, for reasons that should now be obvious, I am unable to respond particularly rationally to being called a faggot. But then I don’t see why, in this day and age,  I should be expected to. Things are supposed to have moved on, in case you didn’t know. Anyway, I  don’t think I over-reacted and, in this case, I happen to think it’s my opinion that counts. That’s what the law says too, as a matter of fact.

I’m not claiming to be whiter than white. I am fully aware that I’ve made comments on this blog that have offended some people of whom I am very fond. I’m very sorry that I’ve caused offence in this way. I also admit some of my jokes are a bit off-colour. I tend to be direct in my criticism of those I think deserve it. I think I know how to take a joke too; growing up as  gay teenager in 1970s Newcastle gave me quite a thick skin. I can take forthright criticism too – I should; I’ve had plenty of practice! But I will not accept being called a faggot. Everyone has their limits, and that is mine.

If you don’t like it then, frankly, you can F-off.